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WAIT UNTIL MONDAY FOR GAME OF WEEK

This is Week Five of the season, and it's time for a quiz: What's harder than picking winners against the point spread in the NFL this year?

If you answered "kicking field goals," give yourself a passing grade. The answer I was looking for, however, was: Finding the most interesting game to feature each week. This week is no exception.

I settled on San Francisco at Carolina for two reasons:

1 -- This is the only game between division rivals with first place at stake. The 49ers lead the NFC West at 3-1. The Panthers are 2-2 and tied with St. Louis for second place.

2 -- The game is being played on Monday Night Football, which has produced incredible finishes three weeks in a row.

The 49ers already have answered the question of whether they can win without Jerry Rice. They even won a game without Steve Young, and they come into this game after two one-sided home victories.

The Panthers, who are 3-1 in the two-year history of this series and were undefeated at home last year, come into this game after suffering a 35-14 loss at home to Kansas City. That was their worst regular-season loss since 1995. It also was their second home loss of the season. Quarterback Kerry Collins was intercepted four times by the Chiefs, who returned one for a touchdown.

Playing on Monday night in front of the home crowd should give the Panthers a lift they badly need, but the 49ers have been there before and should have no trouble beating the Panthers and the surprisingly small point spread.

Best bet

Kansas City plays host to Seattle, a team they practically own. The Chiefs are 10-2 against the point spread in their last 12 home games with the Seahawks. Here are the scores of the Chiefs' victories at home over the Seahawks from 1996 to 1991: 34-16, 26-3, 38-23, 34-24, 26-7 and 20-13.

On top of that, the point spread this week is the smallest the Chiefs have faced at home against the Seahawks since 1989. The Chiefs are on a three-game winning streak after losing their opener at Denver. The Chiefs are as good a pick as they get.

Best of the rest

Oakland is the hard-luck team of the NFL this season. The Raiders are 1-3, but their three losses were by a total of five points. Last week, in a 23-22 loss to the Jets, the Raiders' Jeff George completed 26 of 38 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns, Napoleon Kaufman rushed for 126 yards, the Raiders committed no turnovers, they held the Jets to 83 yards rushing, they dominated the time of possession by 10 minutes, and they lost the game. Of course, the four missed field goals by Cole Ford didn't help. Even if they don't sign a new kicker for this week, the Raiders, coming home after a two-game road trip, are a good choice over St. Louis. . . . Baltimore is the surprise team of the AFC. The Ravens are 3-1 and one point from being undefeated. They are 4-0 against the point spread. But this is their third straight road game, and they are 1-5 against the spread in their last six games against the Chargers. This may be a reach, but I like the Chargers to put the Ravens in their place. . . . Green Bay is 0-4 against the point spread, but the spread this week finally has come down to a level the Packers can handle. Detroit has a point-spread advantage of 4-2 in its last six home games with the Packers, but the Packers won, 31-3, last year and should do nearly as well this week. . . . New Orleans surprised everyone last week by winning its first game and committing no turnovers. The Saints are 3-1 against the spread in their last four games against the Giants at the Meadowlands. The Saints won in this situation last year, 17-3. The Giants are talent-poor. Take the Saints.

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